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Photography show illustrates, interprets Native American life

Bill DeYoung



Tom Jones is a professor of photography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

Photographer Tom Jones has a unique perspective on the Ho-Chunk people of Wisconsin, the subject of his exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg. The Professor of Photography, University of Wisconsin-Madison, is himself a full-blooded member of the Ho-Chunk Nation. 

Opening today, Here We Stand consists of more than 100 images, from the conceptual to the abstract to augmented documentary. Consisting of a dozen or more series, it’s what the artist calls “a continuing photographic essay.”

Historically known as the Winnebago Tribe, the Ho-Chunk (“People of the Big Voice”) originated in the Red Bank Region of Wisconsin. Today, there are approximately 10,000 Ho-Chunk citizens living in the state’s five tribal districts, and scattered throughout the United States and the world.

For Jones, who grew up in Orlando and went to graduate school in the Chicago area, applying his art to his heritage was organic.

“When I was younger, I would look in books and try to find anything that was Winnebago,” he said during a Friday preview of the exhibit. “I’d go into the index and look, and there was nothing. So throughout life I’ve wanted to bring my people to the world. Am I’m able to do it with my work.”

From “Dear America: My Country Tis of Thee” series, 2002, Inkjet print and ink. All images: Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend, Wisconsin.

Colorful, multi-layered and even whimsical at times, the series in Here We Stand depict Ho-Chunk life both past and present with an unmistakably artistic eye. These are not merely portraits and landscapes.

It’s not so much historic preservation, it’s carrying the Ho-Chunk forward into the present day (“I’m not trying to romanticize the past,” Jones admitted). Even the title – Here We Stand – is a declaration of purpose. “I mainly just want to get our image out to the world.”

Fire Pit, from “I am an Indian First and an Artist Second” series, 2008, Inkjet print. 

With I am an Indian First and an Artist Second, Jones creates brightly colored abstract art from the undersides of plastic “Indian” toys and accessories. It’s a matter of perspective.

“Every series is completely different,” Jones explained. “It just depends, conceptually, on what I want to get out there.”

The ambitious Dear America: My Country Tis of Thee is a series of enlarged historical photos or postcards – Jones is an avid collector – each pointing out, through hand-lettered words, paint or collage add-ons – America’s inconsistent (to put it politely) treatment of its native peoples, particularly the Ho-Chunk.

“When I’m talking about other tribes, it’s more in a conceptual way,” Jones said. “Because I don’t feel like I have the right to talk about the way that they are. Because I know nothing about that – that’s why I only deal with Ho-Chunk issues.”

Bryson Funmaker, from “Strong Unrelenting Spirits” series, 2020, Inkjet print and beadwork, On loan from Mike and Linda Schmudlach.

Strong Unrelenting Spirits consists of large color portraits of cotemporary Ho-Chunk people (including Jones’ mother and nephew) in traditional dress. Each image is embellished with beadwork patterns, stitched directly into the photo itself by Jones himself.

This, particularly, is where Jones’ artistic eye comes in. Like all artists, he said he can’t put into words how he knows when a work is complete, satisfying his vision. He just knows.

“There’s one where I looked at it and said ‘Was I supposed to do something else on here?’ Because it felt a little empty, or naked.

“With photography, you’re always trying to balance something out and formally compose your photograph. So it’s the same when I’m putting the beads on there: ‘How will this look?’”

Jones and Museum of Fine Arts Senior Curator of Photography Dr. Jane Aspinwall will conduct an artist talk today (Saturday, May 13) at 11 a.m.

Find information on the Museum of Fine Arts and Here We Stand here.




















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